Lack of environmental impact study puts British-funded dismantlement of two Russian subs on holdThe

Bellona betviler at den sunkne ubåten Kursk hadde atomraketter ombord.
Photo: Sevmarsh

Publish date: February 25, 2004

Written by: Andrey Mikhailov

British Under-Secretary of State of Trade and Industry Nigel Griffiths this Tuesday toured Severodvinsk in Northwest Russia to inspect progress on the British-funded dismantlement of two Oscar I class submarines. Unfortunately for Griffiths, the inspection took place under a cloud, as no environmental impact study on the submarines' £11.5m ($21.5m) has yet been performed, the discovery of which has caused an enforced cessation of the project's major work.

The submarine dismantlement operation is being carried out at the Zvezdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk in the Arkhangelsk region. The main contractor for the British side is the Sevmash shipyard, also located in Severodvinsk.

On February 14th, Yury Dyachenko, chief environment protection inspector of the Chief Directorate of Natural Resources, issued a stern warning to Sevmash for not providing environmental impact study documentation in time on. He said that he might suspend all the work on the two Oscars unless Sevmash could furnish a satisfactory explanation for beginning the project without the study.

Shipyards scramble to ‘find’ the study
The first reaction from Sevmash was that the documents had at one time been in their possession, but had mysteriously disappeared. Other sources at Sevmash said that the full documentation package was sent by post to Britain, but that Sevmash itself had forgotten to photocopy the documents for its own use.

The official explanation came on February 20th, when the commission of the Chief Directorate of Environmental Resources held a meeting on subject of the missing documents. Top brass from both Sevmash, Zvezdochka and other officials were present.

Sevmash admits it hasn’t performed an impact study
The Shipyards’ representatives admitted that no environmental impact study has yet been performed due to the fact that it was a pilot project—or a first time experiment in dismantling decommissioned Oscars—and since the 2003 financial year was nearing its end, it was decided to start preparation work on dismantling the two submarines without a finalised environmental impact study.

The Shipyards’ officials also said that they were basing their decisions in the pilot project on documentation developed for Yankee class submarines, project 667A. Yankee class submarines are first generation strategic submarines, whereas Oscars are third generation cruise missile submarines, implying myriad structural differences.

The meeting resulted in a 40,000-rouble fine—equivalent to $1,400—for Sevmash and a decision by the Directorate of Environmental Resources to suspend all decommissioning operations which are beyond the scope of documentation developed for Yankee class before the environmental impact study is completed. This means the British-funded Oscar I class dismantlement will not move forward until an environmental impact study based on documentation for Oscar I class is produced.

The environmental impact study is being carried out by the Onega bureau, based in Severodvinsk.

An array of smaller operations falling within the parameters of Yankee class sub documentation that are currently being carried out on the two submarines include unloading of the equipment and the removing removable plating on the submarines’ hulls.

500,000 pounds for documentation
The funding for the decommissioning is carried out under auspices of the British Department of Trade and Industry, or DTI. The project commenced in summer 2003 was a British contribution to the Group of Eight industrialised nations’ $20 billion Global Partnership pledge. The objective of the British project was to determine its long-term sustainability, and make recommendations on the feasibility of further similar initiatives.

David Field, the project director from RWE NUKEM—the British firm that is performing the consulting work necessary for the project—told Bellona Web in a telephone interview that DTI selected these two Oscars because they are "low risk" subs. Both of the submarines are relatively new—they were commissioned in 1980 and 1981—they have both been defuelled and were already in the area of Severodvinsk shipyards, therefore no risky towing operations were involved.

Charles Davies, Second Secretary of the British Embassy in Oslo, told Bellona Web in a telephone interview that the Oscar dismantlement is a pilot project, and the low risk factor was central to selecting these subs in order to gain first hand experience in performing such operations.

Both Davies and Field were surprised to hear of the documentation snafu, specifically concerning the environmental impact study.

"We spent £500,000 on the documentation and we thought it included environmental assessment," Davies said.

K-159 sinking prompts change of polices
After the dramatic sinking of K-159, a November class submarine that went down on August 30th 2003—killing nine of the 10 crew members aboard—The Bellona Foundation called on western nations providing funding for nuclear remediation projects in Russia to spend their money prudently. Though the K-159 was not towed using western funding, it illustrated in morbid detail the slip-shod practices employed in dismantling Russia’s fleet of derelict decommissioned subs—practices no western nation would wish to be responsible for funding.

"Western donors cannot simply give financial support without reviewing each stage of the process they are funding—for example the process of dismantling a nuclear submarine," Alexander Nikitin, former submarine captain first class and currently chairman of Bellona’s St Petersburg branch, said shortly after the K-159’s accident.

The K-159 was being towed by tug-boat to the Polyarny shipyard, near Arctic city of Murmansk for dismantlement when its tow line snapped and it sank during the early morning hours of August 30th, one day out to sea. The bulk of funding for dismantling the K-159—and 15 other non-strategic submarines that were to be towed from Gremikha, a semi-abandoned naval base in the eastern part of the Kola Peninsula—was to come from Western donor countries. But the sinking put sub towing indefinitely on hold by order of Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s former Minister of Defence.

Norway pioneered the efforts of the international community to fund the dismantlement of non-strategic submarines when it signed a contract last summer with Russian shipyards to dismantle two Victor II class submarines. Both submarines had been located at Gremikha and towed to a dismantlement site for destruction. The dismantlement of these two Victors is well underway, but the sinking of K-159 was a cold shower for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which coordinates such projects.

As a result of pressure from the Storting—Norway’s parliament—and Bellona, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs eventually adopted a new scheme for dealing with dangerous waste and nuclear material in Russia. The new scheme suggested that Norwegian Radiation Protection Authorities, or the NRPA, is responsible for the technical part of nuclear remediation projects and evaluates the environmental risk assessments provided by Russia prior to commencing such projects.

Commenting on why Britain did not follow a similar line when contracting to destroy the two Oscars, DTI’s Field said: "We did not follow the same practice as Norway does now, since the submarines were of low risk."

Davies of Britain’s Oslo embassy added that "we shall evaluate all the documents generated during the decommissioning and before that we shall not contract for new submarines."

There are only two Oscar I class submarines in the Russian Navy, both of them were operating in the Northern Fleet. As for the sheer number of submarines that have been decommissioned from the Soviet-era figure of 250, 192 have been taken out of service—116 of those in the Northern Fleet. Overall, 91 submarines have been entirely dismantled, 58 of those being Northern Fleet submarines.

Seventy-one submarines that have been taken out of active service await dismantlement with their spent fuel still on board. Of those, 36 are located in the Northern Fleet in bases on the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk region.

Mikhailov reported from Severodvinsk and Kudrik reported from Oslo.